Part II

A raven circled above the ledge where I sat, large, black, a bird of the arctic, subject of many legends of its own, eyeing me. Then uttering its distinctive cry it wheeled and went about its business, adding its image to those that swirled within my mind. For ravens too were part of my childhood memories, memories that were vivid, powerful, and complete as I faced the Sages across the barrier, Jorgensen by my side. The oldest Sage nodded, placed his bracelet against the rectangle in his hand, and the screen once again collapsed. "I am relieved you came through the experience sane. We were not completely sure you would -- the drug is still experimental, and this was the first time we tested it."

"Then you deliberately risked my life," I said. I had noticed while drinking the soup that the entrance to the room was no longer there, that, in fact, there were no signs of exits anywhere.

"Yes," he said. "But we had no other choice."

"And this...hallucination? It will help me understand?" Inside, under my calm exterior, held at bay by the temporary effects of shock reinforced by the years of training and mental discipline it had taken to master an'tala, learn to live with an alien mind -- no matter how loved -- sharing my every thought and mood, I felt waves of terror pounding against my sanity, madness hovering like a beast waiting its chance to attack.

"It was not a hallucination," the woman with the short gray hair and pale blue eyes said flatly. "Do not think otherwise. This world we inhabit is precisely what your memory tells you it is." I felt the terror, the risk of madness, suddenly surge when she said that, then -- under the influence of the sheer power of the memories, their intricate detail, the vast expanse of knowledge they contained -- I managed to once again regain control. Her voice indisputably held nothing but conviction, complete certainty. And, interestingly, below the surface, faint, instinctively attracting my attention, I began to discern something else. Perhaps...distaste?

"It just requires a philosophical shift," Jorgensen said calmly from beside me. "Once that is achieved everything becomes all right. And you have already begun the process." He paused, then added gently, "You just need a little time to get used to the idea. As the rest of us did."

* * *

The wind picked up as the day advanced, increasing the chill, and though still immersed in my memories, the blocks of images swirling within my mind, I finally returned from my perch on the ledge to my bivouac in the clearing and made my camp, gathering wood for a small fire and preparing my sleeping area. Then, feeling the first faint touches of unease that was da'ahta's harbinger, knowing that soon I would have to take another dose of sy'ahta but realizing I had time to eat first, that it was better to take it on a full stomach, I opened one of the packages of food the Sages had provided for me and my companions. Inside, I found slabs of moose on bread, a meat I recognized from the memories, a meat that triggered a new series of memories, memories of pain and childhood rejection. Children have strong herd instincts, combined with an intolerance for those who do not conform physically to their norm, and as a result I had been somewhat of an outcast because of the mixed blood that showed so clearly in the structure of my body: taller than the others, and slimmer, with only the slant of my eyes and cheekbones, the color of my skin and hair, to show my Inuit heritage. And, of course, also somehow tainting me because of the white blood, was the discontent my village felt because we had been forced to leave our home by the frozen sea when the melt began and move to the interior, the land of our enemies, as the rising waters flooded our tundra; a move to a place of strangeness and dishonor where there was no living to be had except through the barren wastes of charity and lost pride.

Because of these influences, when I grew old enough I turned to the illegal hunting of big game for my family, an excuse that allowed me to spend days away from the village seeking to assuage my loneliness. It was during the many long nights while out on the hunt that I first began to take comfort from the stars, their steady, dependable progression, and over time they became my friends, more comfortable companions than my own people, and finally provided a chance for escape from not only poverty and the village, but the planet itself, to the clean environment of the Lunar Institute on the far side of our natural moon. For I was able, after long years of study, to become one of the finalists for an intern position, and it was while walking through the park to one of my preparatory classes that the attack that led to my being transported had occurred.

The memories were not easy. Nor pleasant. Except for the stars, of course, an interest that had, strangely enough, survived my being transported and had eventually resulted in my clan name. For Ryahda means Watcher of the Stars. And, as I sat there by my fire, eating, going over in my mind all that the Sages had told me, I could not help but feel a strange, nightmarish sense of irony, for apparently I got my wish after all -- to escape from both the poverty of my village and the planet.

"That is correct," Viggen had said, he whom Jorgensen had introduced as their historian. "PDU-1, more formally known as Penal Detention Unit One, is essentially a self-contained, self-maintaining computer 209 kilometers in diameter orbiting between the asteroid belt and Jupiter. Within its VR matrix, where we, in effect, live, the illusion of planetary reality is complete."

"But..." I said, the concept still staggering me in spite of the vividness of the memories and the detailed knowledge I now possessed. "Us. Our being only -- "

"I know," said Jorgensen softly. "...patterns within a program. It is hard to accept."

"Yet that is all life is, if you think about it at the level of absolute reductionism," said Morgan, who had been introduced as their lead programmer. "Nothing but patterns of forces, anomalies within the fabric of space-time. It doesn't matter what matrix is used. All that counts is consciousness, which becomes possible once there is sufficient complexity." He grinned at me, "We are as real as any life-force in the universe. There is no question about it."

"Self-awareness demonstrates this," said the woman with the short gray hair and pale blue eyes, who had been introduced as O'Leary though I was now beginning to think of her as the admin, perhaps because my memories of the schools and prisons I had experienced both before my trial, then afterward, while waiting for Transportation, were beginning to merge with my Donda memories. "It's pointless to discuss. Here we live and here we die, and that's the end of it." She made an odd, irritated little chopping motion with her hand, as if cutting a branch off a tree.

Morgan gave her a look I could not interpret, nodded to me to continue.

My mind awed by the subtle details within my memory, the way things dovetailed, I said, "This machine was built, then, because our society could not control its breeding and, unable to exceed the speed of light, was blocked from migrating to the stars? And, while the bugs were being worked out, prior to the main immigration, prisoners were used to test its safety?"

"Yes," said the oldest, he who was called V-Kay, perhaps from the initials of his name. "We are all part of an experiment brought about by the lack of living space and natural resources."

"Then you," I said, gesturing at them, "were prisoners too?"

"No," he said, a bleak look passing across his eyes, possibly a reflection of past memories. "We entered for a different reason. But you are right: these machines -- for PDU-1 was only a prototype -- were intended to alleviate Earth's overcrowding. To provide new frontiers as well as living space. A chance for a better life. That is why this project received both government and commercial backing. The situation was becoming critical, and something had to be done."

I nodded. "This I remember. But even as a child I saw what to me was a serious problem with this project. One that I was certain would cause most prospective immigrants to hesitate. Especially since the drugs and invasive scans required for `imprinting' invariably caused the physical death of the subject, resulting in a one-way journey."

Morgan looked at me. "What was that?" he asked.

I gazed at him, reviewing my memories, trying to sort them out, resolve the complexities and contradictions, then said, "From what I remember, the basic process consists of recording our individual brain patterns, along with an in-depth analysis of our personal chemistries, then uploading them to PDU-1 where they are compiled into interactive subprograms so we can continue with our lives. Is this not correct?"

He nodded, a slight smile touching his lips.

"Then who are we, really?" I asked, the root of my suppressed fear surfacing, feeling what seemed like a wind from the arctic beginning to howl within me, crying for what was perhaps my lost innocence. "The ones who are here now, or the ones who died back on earth after the imprints were taken? For obviously we are only copies. As is our world. Just very advanced virtual-reality simulations operating within an orbiting, self-contained supercomputer."

"Is it important?" he asked. Apparently this was an old question with him, possibly one that he had thought about for a very long time. "After all, you -- like us -- are one of those who survived the experiment. And because you survived, you are alive now, conscious and able to act."

"I don't know," I said, struggling to hold onto my mental balance, block the rising terror of my thoughts, the scream beginning within my mind. "I haven't had time to think about it. But I find it...uncomfortable."

"You will shortly find it more than uncomfortable," said the admin, "if we don't attend to the problem we all face." She looked at me with both contempt and disgust, "You weren't brought here just so you could have a sophomoric discussion of philosophy with Morgan. Let me put it this way: have you not noticed that Transported Ones are no longer arriving?"

Her words cut through our conversation, bringing silence as I turned to face her, and a sudden sharp tension fell over the room, caused perhaps by the change in my eyes, my bearing. Within a state of frozen time I noticed Jorgensen -- more familiar with Donda mores than the other Sages, the constant threat of attack that hung over our lives -- stiffening at my side, hand partway to his rectangle but now arrested, no longer moving, probably thankful Ly'is wasn't present, as my warrior's reflexes, honed for survival, shifted my mind abruptly into the here-and-now, into sanity, into focus, at this uncalled-for insult, one that required an instant response in a society of armed outlaws such as mine. Then my Earth memories fell into place, solidifying what before had been only vague intimations, not seeming of any real importance, and I had her, her type, and was able to stop my instinctive reach for my dagger, the throw that would embed it in her throat. She was one of those who thrived in the world of my birth, one who wielded power within structured environments, societies of laws and authority, the support systems of cities, of what passed for civilization. Societies in which one could indulge in the pleasure of delivering gratuitous insults with impunity, knowing they were safe from any retaliation worse than rudeness. A personality type rarely encountered in the lands of the Donda and Z'Hann, lands without police, courts, or lawyers, lands where on their own people like her could not survive for more than a few days.

The same instant these thoughts passed through my mind I also became aware that, instead of my dagger, I owed the admin a debt of gratitude, for under the challenge of her insult my body had responded, and in so doing had answered Morgan's question. There was no doubt whatsoever that, for hundreds of years, I had been more than comfortable with my life in the Central Desert as a warrior among the Donda and the diaks, a life far more suited to my temperament than the life my memories indicated I had been forced to lead on Earth. And I realized, with an abruptness that shocked me, that no matter what my actual origins might have been, or how I came to be here, or even what the matrix or technology was that supported my life, none of it had any true relevance. All that mattered was that I was here now, alive, conscious, and able to act. Just as Morgan had said.

Yet -- and this surprised me -- there was something else here too, bewrayed by the Sages' knowledge that they could not get their barrier erected in time to prevent my dagger from reaching the admin's throat, severing her spinal cord. And that was a sudden strong fear, one that I could not understand, one that seemed totally unwarranted under the circumstances, a fear they all shared. A fear I could now smell. Looking at the admin, her sudden paleness at the realization of what she had done, the situation she had inadvertently created, probably not really meaning her remark the way it sounded to a Donda warrior, I still could not help but wonder why Morgan put up with this type of treatment from her. I knew there was something important here, some undercurrent beyond the cultural gap between Earth and Donda mores, which I was missing, but what it was I had no idea.

And Jorgensen. At the moment of crisis he had gambled, had not continued his reach for his rectangle, which I now realized was a powerful personal computer that worked in concert with his bracelet, but had instead placed his trust, and possibly his life, in his evaluation of me, the way I would respond to her insult, override my instincts, adapt to the situation. So I turned slightly, meeting his eyes, and imperceptibly nodded, acknowledging his gamble, honoring it, then turned back to the admin.

"Perhaps you are right," I said to her gently, my voice mild. "There will be time enough for philosophy after our problem has been resolved. So why don't you tell me what it is; why the Transported Ones are no longer arriving, and what it signifies."

* * *


Its icy fingers spread throughout the core of my being, a malignant, creeping cold wind of death and despair that brought in its wake chills overlaid with hot flashes, deep aches within my bones, a sense of my nerves vibrating like tuning forks, waves of nausea, intense loneliness, and a black suicidal depression building within slowing time, mitigated only by my knowledge that Ly'is was waiting, that I only had to step through the Sages' doorway to once again be with her, within an'tala. Through the damp fog that prevented even the solace of the stars the light of the setting moons glowed, creating a soft, almost mystical, illumination that da'ahta warped into a sense of ominous dread, the very soil of the clearing where I had my bivouac, the plants growing here and there, the dying embers of my small fire, whispering, we're not real, we're only streams of zeros and ones in a computer program, as are you, you died aeons ago, your body, and all that has transpired during the 800 and some years since your Awakening has been nothing but a machine dream. Even the stars are not real, only simulated, and for you it makes no difference if the real stars, shining within the distorting lens of space-time, are still in existence, for you will never again see them, never again wonder in innocence about their nature, what lies beyond them, never again have their comfort...


We are the lucky ones, Jorgensen had said.

You will shortly find it more than uncomfortable, the admin said.

Is it important? Morgan had asked.


Time was becoming blurred, mixed in my mind, when had what been said? Did what Jorgensen say come before or after what Morgan said? Or had Viggen said it?

I struggled to rise, reach my quiver-pack before total immobilization overcame me, failed. I could not move, my energy draining out, time stretching, vision starting to strobe, information now coming in discrete packets, beginning to distort, colors starting to take on an unusual vividness, image borders, cracks in the rocks, plants, the coals of my fire starting to move in an internal dance, patterns flowing across the inner rods of my eyes, merging into the fog, becoming one...


It was always our dread, our vulnerability, the Achilles' heel of all warriors. And now, deeply absorbed in the flow of my memories, the decision I must make, I had -- just like on Earth when, preparing for a class, completing an assignment, doing computer programming, Baroque music playing softly in the background, I would sink so deeply into hack mode that I ignored hunger, thirst, even relieving myself, the hours passing as seconds -- done much the same with the first signs of da'ahta: pushed it off for a moment as I followed the train of my thoughts, and, by so doing, let it creep up on me.

We lived under a delicately balanced, double-edged sword. An'tala, a warrior's telepathic bonding with her diak -- a bonding that created a deep physical addiction on both sides -- is what enabled us to survive in our harsh but beautiful desert environment, survive against not only the forces of nature but as well the men, the soldiers who tried so hard to capture and kill us. Yet, when a warrior's diak died, or when they were separated by more than about twenty kilometers, an'tala, being distance-dependent, was broken, and, if she did not find a new cub to bond with within two and a half to three days, or was unable to rejoin her diak, she would enter da'ahta and, shortly thereafter, die.


I tried again for my quiver-pack; again failed...

The coals of the fire caught my attention, their shimmering glow seeming to whisper, see, this is what it will be like, your world, look, look how the colors flow, their patterns, see them growing, expanding outward, now one AU, now two, now --

The sound of a night hunter, its cry, just overhead, pierced the fog, streaming tentacles of moving color turning into sound back to color back to sound, and I jumped, the reflexive movement causing an inadvertent and unpleasant orgasm, the orgasm becoming one with the sound, the colors, my vibrating nerves, and as I fell I glimpsed my quiver-pack on the other side of the fire, twisted, rolled through the coals, was able to grab it, reach into its pocket, extract a sy'ahta root. Found my dagger in my hand, cut off a piece of the root, started chewing.


Its taste, foul beyond belief, bitter, shunned by all except warriors and diaks in need, flowed through my mouth, into my nose, down my throat, and I found myself crying with relief as da'ahta began to fade, sanity return...

Whooo, said the night hunter, flying above the fog.

I sat there, watching, as the coals shrank, became just coals once again, but now changed, harbingers of the future, a reminder of how critical things were, what was waiting.



* * *

"It was thought during the middle of the twentieth century that the discovery of nuclear weapons would end up destroying life on earth," said Viggen. "But it wasn't nuclear weapons that spelled the end of humanity -- though they played their part -- it was the rise of the biological sciences."

Between us, the row of Sages on one side, Jorgensen and I on the other, the Tri-D floated, showing the Earth spinning, time-lapse images taken automatically from First Moon over a period of several hundred years, images of destruction, of death, the history of our species, our civilization, the fires burning, then slowly dying out, the rust-brown air slowly changing, becoming transparent once again, the clouds white, high cirrus spreading lacy filaments across the planet, isolated thunderstorms forming, then dissipating, the flash of their lightning obvious from our vantage point, the planet once again a blue and white oasis in the loneliness of space, clean, beautiful, like it was in those historic photographs, the Apollo 11 Mission, deep in our world's youth, its innocence. A time when its future still lay before it, glorious in its potential, its infinite possibilities...

"Then all that is left of Earth and its people, its civilization, is PDU-1?" I asked, appalled.

"We can't be sure," said Peters, the other programmer who was present at the meeting and sat between Morgan and the quiet, watchful woman named Wong. "But the fact that our instruments continue to show an absence of radio/TV transmissions, or, on the dark side, artificial light, strongly suggests the absence of intelligent life."

"Technological life," dryly corrected Morgan.

"Whatever," said Peters.

"It was the Tragedy of the Commons, expanded to the entire planet," said Viggen. "Uncontrolled breeding, rampant consumerism, a culture of mindless greed and kelter orchestrated by corporations who couldn't see beyond the next quarter and politicians who couldn't see beyond the next election. Extensive crime and corruption at every level of society. Trivial and reckless exploitation of irreplaceable resources with no concern for tomorrow, a widespread attitude that the future could take care of itself."

"Which it did," said Morgan, deadpan.

* * *

"The program started out in good faith," continued Viggen, giving Morgan an irritated look, "with the prototype going from design to completion in slightly less than two decades, using the technologies developed during the construction of HQ."

The Tri-D shifted, showing First Moon, the site of planetary and corporate government, floating in its Lagrangian point sixty degrees in front of our natural moon, the distinctive sheen of its armored electrosteel exterior obvious even from our vantage point. Eight-hundred and fifteen kilometers in diameter, with missile launchers and beam weapons aimed at Earth, it was a constant and deliberate reminder to the general population of where the power lay.

"Administrative, design, and political services were carried out in our technical park in the Lockwood section, with a peak staff of 272,000 during the initial building phase," said Viggen. "This did not, of course, include subcontractors." The Tri-D shifted again, showing the luxurious atrium-like corporate entrance to their section of HQ, its careful gardens symbols of wealth and political power. The camera moved inside, focused on a smiling receptionist, continued on, down corridors, past offices, labs, the luxurious cafeteria, to the guarded control room, an area of screens and controls and work stations.

"It was here where the real work took place, the management of the basic construction," said Viggen. The camera moved down the rows of stations, came to a stop at one of the cubicles where a young woman worked, focused on her screens. The main screen showed robots mining an asteroid, the factory ship standing just off the surface; on the auxiliary screens were graphs and shifting numbers in constant movement.

"Once completed, of course," said Viggen, "PDU-1's maintenance computers took over all this work and our staff was reduced to 111,000, these being mostly involved with lobbying and billing issues."

The view shifted to PDU-1 in its free-ranging orbit between the asteroid belt and Jupiter, its 209-kilometer size looming large in front of us, its exterior, like HQ's, showing the sheen of activated electrosteel, a one-decimeter thickness being capable, once its field has been energized, of withstanding direct exposure to a five-megaton nuclear device.

"Approximately sixty percent of its internal area," continued Viggen, "is used for maintenance services, containing the necessary automated factories required to manufacture replacement parts, along with the ships necessary for collecting raw materials from the asteroid belt, and, periodically, from Jupiter and its Galilean satellites."

The view shifted again, showing ports opening in PDU-1's side, robot ships of various types coming and going, fragile-looking craft with their specialized equipment attached to their external frameworks, ships obviously designed for deep-space operations, outside planetary gravity-wells and atmospheres.

"It also has, for station keeping and repositioning, Boeing Type XIX propulsion units, as well as Karlof reaction engines for precise attitude-control. PDU-1 is now self-contained, and, essentially, immortal," said Viggen.

"Essentially?" I asked, detecting a subtle oddness to his tone, an off-note in his pronunciation of the word, even, once again, a scent of hidden fear.

V-Kay looked at me, the bleakness returning to his eyes. "Our society has a history of abandoning major projects after the first flush of success, diverting the funds to other projects with fresher political appeal while still maintaining lip service to the original project. This is what happened here, when we ran into a fairly minor software problem. We can all count ourselves fortunate that the hardware phase of this project reached completion prior to this point. Had it not, we would not be here today."

He paused as Viggen collapsed the Tri-D, then continued.

"For our world to properly function, it had to evolve naturally, over time, as the real world did. So the main program was started with only the basic parameters, essentially those of Earth just after the extinction of the dinosaurs. The only constraints imposed were that apes could not evolve beyond where they had on Earth, for PDU-1's human population would come from outside."

"Then that is why the animal life here is somewhat different than on Earth, as well as the plant life?" I asked. "Evolution took a slightly different track?"

V-Kay nodded. "Yes," he said. "And by then it was too late, too dangerous, to try and intervene. Which is why, for example, you have the diaks. None of this was planned, it just happened."

"But how does this explain an'tala? The obvious powers of the oracles? Surely these are not possible in a natural, biological environment?"

V-Kay hesitated, then shrugged. "It has nothing to do with biology; it's an artifact of the software. A bug in several of the subprograms. A form of cross talk. Certain types of training apparently can make one sensitive enough to its effects to exploit the bug."

"There are some who would consider it a feature, not a bug," said Morgan dryly with a nod in my direction. "After all, it gives them the edge they need to survive."

"It also makes them addicts," said the admin. "Perhaps, since the subject has come up, the Donda would like to know the reason for that, since the oracles, who employ the same bug, do not have that problem."

V-Kay shrugged again. "PDU-1's software controls the physiological processes of all life-forms within the matrix, and these processes have to conform to natural biological laws. Unfortunately, the an'tala bug allows, under certain conditions, illegal links to be made between the physiologies of certain warriors and diaks in such a way that once imprinting has occurred, telepathic communications become not only possible, but eventually necessary -- and therefore addictive -- to both species.

I searched my memories of long-ago classes on Earth, said, "Then sy'ahta counters the effects of withdrawal by acting on the physiological receptors that were modified by the bug?"

V-Kay nodded. "Yes. As to the oracles, the reason they do not become addicted is because they do not practice cross-species fraternization."

"Mental miscegenation," the admin corrected.

"Those who did not adapt died out," Jorgensen reminded her. "Survival is the highest law."

I said nothing, keeping my thoughts to myself. The look I had seen on the admin's face when Morgan said some considered an'tala a feature, not a bug, was enough to have put me on alert status, had I not already been there. As it was, the best I could do under the present circumstances was file it away in my mind, just another item among many, for future review. And, if necessary, corrective action.

V-Kay smiled again, and signaled to Viggen to continue with the briefing.

* * *

"Structurally, the New Frontiers for Humanity project was divided into four broad but overlapping departments," Viggen said. "Hardware, Software, Biometrics, and Administration. Hardware was subcontracted to Boeing's Defense & Space Group, which built PDU-1 and its infrastructure; Software was subcontracted to Sun Microsystems' AI division; Biometrics was subcontracted to Consolidated Pharmaceuticals' Special Projects division; and RJR handled Administration, which not only had overall responsibility for the project, including design and management, but contained the Political Action, Billing, and Public Relations departments as well."

Viggen paused slightly, then continued. "We were all employees of the various principals. O'Leary, V-Kay, and I were with RJR, Wong was a biologist with Consolidated, Jorgensen worked for Boeing, and Morgan and Peters were with Sun."

I nodded, sensing from his tone that something was coming.

V-Kay stared at me, his eyes now strangely flat, said, "The reason we are pointing this out to you is to emphasize that none of us were at a high enough management level to influence, one way or another, the course of events. In the end, we only escaped the fate of the others through a stroke of undeserved luck."

I nodded, looking from one to the other, my bad feeling increasing. I knew I was not going to like what came next.

* * *

Viggen touched his PC to his bracelet, and between us formed an image of a vast auditorium filled with people wearing clothes much like those the Sages wore, only richer. On a stage at the far end were two long tables separated by a podium, and behind it a large screen with the animated logo of RJR floating over an image of PDU-1. At the podium was a large florid man making a speech. The people sitting at the tables, about forty of them, stared out over the crowd, many wearing translators in their ears.

The camera moved closer, and now I was able to make out the seal of the World Council on the podium and read the name plates in front of each of those at the tables. All of Earth's Sectors were represented, as well as HQ, which also was a Sector. I recognized the president of NA Sector, somewhat younger than when I was transported, for his image had regularly appeared in the news box on my PC's screen during my school years. That was, when I allowed the news box on my screen, for though by law it had to be there and could not be turned off, I had hacked the system so I could get some peace and quiet while I worked from the constant stream of propaganda, disinformation, and ads. And a remnant of my old technical curiosity slid into my mind, unbidden and unwanted, a memento of the distant past, causing me to wonder how the mental interface in the Sages' bracelet -- for that is what it had to be -- worked. I also found myself wondering why, with technology this advanced, the computer itself wasn't a biological implant. Apparently the Sages' technology hadn't reached that point yet. If, in fact, it was advancing at all since they had been transported. That too was something worth thinking about.

The camera now focused on a table below the podium, also facing the audience, and I saw that those sitting at it were representatives of the various subcontractors involved with the design and construction of PDU-1. Viggen activated the audio, and as the man at the podium introduced each of them in turn, they stood and bowed to the crowd.

Jorgensen turned to me, asked quietly, "Did you view the ceremony at the time of its original broadcast?"

I shook my head no. According to the memories, I had been in a valley east of my village hunting moose, for my family's need was great and I chose to spend my share of the village Welfare not on overpriced food from the local store, but on education: admission to the encrypted satellite classes and the SunEd software required for my lessons, both of which were extremely expensive. Outcast though I was, and scorned by the village, when it came to moose hunting -- which was illegal for natives, with severe penalties if caught -- no one turned me in for the reward offered by the authorities. The reason, of course, was that the entire village despised the law that reserved the moose around our homes for the wealthy sportsmen from the cities who could afford the high license fees and the guides who brought them onto our lands. And, oddly, a sense of sadness, of sympathy and compassion for my village, the people in it, suddenly flowed over me. Were it not for them, the education their silence bought me, I would not be alive today.

Viggen turned the audio off, said, "This was the official launching ceremony marking the completion of the New Frontiers prototype." As he spoke the camera moved to the screen behind the podium, focusing on the RJR logo. The logo and image of PDU-1 dissolved into a view of a chair with straps surrounded by many machines. In the chair, with a large machine attached to his head, was a heavily-drugged man wearing prison coveralls, his fear obvious. Standing by were many technicians in white coats and name badges, and it seemed to me that one of them, a young woman with short hair off to one side holding an electronic notepad, could have been Wong.

The camera moved in on the prisoner's face, lingered for a few moments, focusing on the terror in his eyes, then drew back until the florid man at the podium had center stage. The man said a few more words, then took a box with a red button on it from a uniformed guard, and, looking at the expectant audience, nodded once and pressed the button. On the screen the prisoner in the chair stiffened, then slumped, and the audience broke into applause.

As Viggen collapsed the Tri-D, he said, "At the time, though it was not public knowledge, the success rate for transportation was still at four percent. Later on, with continued experimentation, we managed to raise it to twenty-three percent, where it remained. Because of this, while the hardware's success was publicly rated at one-hundred percent, the biometrics received a rating of only fifty percent. As did the software."

"I would say that was a bit disingenuous," I murmured. "Was this part of your problem?"

Morgan shook his head. "No, the problem was mostly in our department: the growing discrepancy between internal and external time with each application uploaded."

"Application?" I asked.

Morgan grinned. "That's what you are: an application. As are the rest of us. To RJR."

I found myself grinning back, starting to like him somewhat, as I did Jorgensen, sensing a kindred spirit on certain levels, just as I sensed some of the inner stresses between the Sages, subtle undercurrents, webs of friction. Perhaps back on Earth, had we met under different circumstances, we might even have become friends, for he too had a touch of the outlaw, the rebel. But this was not Earth, and I was not at their stronghold for social reasons. And my hunter's, my warrior's instincts warned that the deadly danger I sensed here, in spite of the civility, the touches of friendliness, was not decreasing as the Sages proceeded with my briefing, but rather increasing. Knowledge equaled power, and power equaled danger. An equation we all understood.

"Interesting," I said, the grin fading from my face, the brief moment of rapport over. "A new corporate euphemism. Application . Was the transportation of the `application' I saw at the launching ceremony a success?"

V-Kay shrugged. "Publicly, politically, and financially, yes. The media made a big fuss about it, as they usually do, helped by our Public Relations department. Investments in RJR soared, as did the stock market in general. But in actual fact, though known only within the New Frontiers Group , he was one of our many failures." V-Kay looked me in the eyes, said, "An initial success rate of only four percent may appear to be small, but the stakes were high, far higher, as history has shown, than any of us at the time imagined."

I shrugged. Life was cheap on Earth, as it was here. And what was past was past. Certainly, after all these years, it was no concern of mine or of the Donda. "Okay. So what's this about time discrepancies?"

* * *

"At the time of the launching ceremony," Viggen said, "PDU-1's software was accurately simulating an environment similar to Earth's during the late Neolithic Period. Both geological and biological evolution had basically stabilized, and the environment was ready for the introduction of its first human inhabitants. Internal time was set to operate at a rate 2,000 times faster than time as measured by an observer on Earth. This was done so we could monitor long-term internal events as they occurred, and, when necessary, make the needed adjustments. This also was the top speed the prototype, which contained our most advanced technology, could achieve."

"That needs to be qualified," said Peters. "It was the top speed the current software release could support after evolutionary stability had been achieved."

"True," said Viggen. "Version 0.97p63."

Morgan looked at me. "Those of us on the development team wanted to wait until the software had reached 1.0, for though by design it is self-learning and self-correcting, its code still needed a lot of fine-tuning for optimum performance. But top management at both RJR and Sun overruled us for political and economic reasons, and that led directly to the problem we face today." He paused, his eyes clouding, his usual irreverence now gone, added, "Perhaps we should have tried harder to postpone the launching, for had we done so things might have turned out differently. After all, we were the ones closest to the problem and had the best understanding of the issues involved."

"RJR and Sun had no choice," V-Kay said. "Unlike some of those in the software department, top management does not live in an Ivory Tower and has to deal with the real world. The general public and the World Council had been waiting almost twenty years, with every year bringing more calls to shut off funding, and their patience had finally reached its end. We were warned: either we launched the prototype and immediately began large-scale uploads, or the project would lose government support."

"Which it did anyway," said Morgan.

V-Kay nodded. "True. But by then PDU-1 was self-sufficient and could survive on its own without outside support. Those seven years of additional funding set it free. Without them we wouldn't be here today."

Morgan shrugged, this obviously being an old issue between them, and V-Kay signaled to Viggen to continue the briefing.

* * *

"It was about eighteen months after the large-scale uploads began that we first started to see a decrease in the internal time rate," Viggen said. "It was subtle at first, but as the uploads continued its effects began to accelerate. The same thing was happening with natural births, too: with each new child added to the population there was a measurable slowing of internal time."

V-Kay raised a hand to interrupt Viggen, said to me, "Bear in mind that these variations in internal time were only noticeable to an outside observer -- to those inside the changes could not be detected because external references were not available."

I nodded. "What was RJR's response to this problem?"

V-Kay shrugged. "Actually, they didn't realize they had a serious problem at first. They just assigned a small team from Sun -- Morgan and Peters were part of it -- to work on finding a fix for the code, and continued with the uploads."

Morgan laughed, short and bitter. "It wasn't that they didn't think they had a problem; they just didn't want to know about it. The money was in the scans, the associated maintenance contracts, and the spin-offs. Not to mention that numerous deposits were being accepted for the commercial versions, especially from a wide variety of religious and extremist political groups. RJR had a nice thing going, and they weren't about to let a minor software problem get in their way."

"Interesting," I said, unable to keep a faint hint of contempt out of my voice. "Numerous deposits. With a 23 percent success rate. On an unproven machine. And a `real world' death rate of 100 percent. Impressive logic here."

Morgan shrugged. "When has logic ever prevailed over faith, hope, and hype? Especially with religious and political types. But the success rate at the time was still only four percent, which those placing commercial orders were apprised of under nondisclosure agreements. It was only in later years, with an expensive new process, that the rate climbed to 23 percent." He paused, then added, "The successes were mostly intensely logical types, those who could adapt, both consciously and subconsciously, to the reality of their situation. Females, for some reason, had almost a three-to-one ratio of success over males."

I nodded, thinking how in actuality it was even worse for the males than Morgan thought, for when newly transported males were found on PDU-1, naked and without memory or language, they were usually killed on the spot, with only a few of the more fortunate being enslaved. Our world was not gentle with newcomers, neither male nor female.

"So what happened next?"

Viggen shrugged. "Nothing. We were ordered to keep our mouths shut under penalty of termination, and business continued as usual. This went on for another five and a half years, in spite of repeated warnings that we were forced to send through bureaucratic channels, until finally the program reached the point where internal time had become so much slower than external time that we were in danger of losing control. It was at this point that Morgan, going against all rules and risking termination, sent PDU-1 emergency instructions to place newly uploaded applications into a storage directory and only release them into the general population when there was a death within that group. These instructions were also applied to the naturalborn, so that a birth could not occur until after a death made space available within its group."

"Logical," I said. "Earth should have implemented the same policy shortly after the nineteenth century. How did you keep the two groups separated internally? By group ID?"

Morgan shrugged. "Sure. It's the simplest way, since each individual is also issued a user ID. Applications are placed within the trn group on arrival, and naturalborn within the nb group at conception. These two groups were initially implemented for statistical reasons at the request of RJR's psychologists, so population and settlement trends could be monitored over time. Later, when the performance problem became critical, I used them as a simple means to control population growth."

"Did you add any release controls, to allow for population shifts between the groups?"

Morgan shook his head no. "Not at the time. Later, after I entered PDU-1, I cleaned up the details and made the kluge permanent."

I nodded. "Since we are on the subject, where do they live? Applications and naturalborn?"

V-Kay started to raise his hand, changed his mind.

Morgan glanced at him, shrugged. "Physically, our personal files live in individual subdirectories in the underlying file system, with a bank of Sun-Oracle 4D databases managing the data flow between them and the VR-module."

I nodded again, appreciating as always the genius of the original Unix design, how it was in actuality more of a philosophy and methodology, a way to approach problems, than a code base. Because of this, it had been able to evolve, and therefore survive, over the many years of its existence.

"RJR had to report the crisis to the World Council," Viggen said, "along with a detailed description of the emergency measures we had taken. This precipitated another crisis, and after a stormy closed-door hearing in which we were repeatedly raked over the coals, they voted to temporarily withdraw funding for everything except scanning services while they did a fact-finding study. The only concession they gave RJR was to allow us, after scanning, to place the applications in storage on Earth instead of uploading them to PDU-1."

"In other words, mass executions," I said.

V-Kay shrugged. "Political dissidents and common criminals. RJR still had hope at the time that the software problem could be solved, and once that had been accomplished, those in storage could be transported into one of the commercial versions." The bleakness in his eyes deepened. "But when the World Council received the results from the fact-finding study -- that it would take 120,000 programmers working an additional twenty years to bring internal time into synchronization with external time, and that only if each unit accepted a legally certified limit on total population -- they unofficially placed the project on indefinite hold except for scanning services, which then became, along with deposits for the commercial versions of PDU-1, RJR's sole source of income. And this placed in motion the events that finally led to war."

* * *

"RJR was now on its own," Viggen said, "and to save the New Frontiers project, they had to raise money, and raise it fast. So they naturally turned to their marketing people, and marketing turned to both RJR's clients and to their Public Relations department. The entire project entered its final phase at this point, which was large-scale commercial development."

"This must have happened after I was transported," I said, "for I don't remember anything about commercial development, just the prototype."

V-Kay touched his PC to his bracelet, said, "One year and seven months later. You were in Batch 32709, the third that PDU-1 placed in storage for future release. Uploads ceased at 32804 -- after that, all scans were placed in storage on Earth."

"The sales program was based on a science called behavioral economics," continued Viggen, "which dated back to the late twentieth century and demonstrated that people have a strong tendency to imitate the behavior of other people in choosing everything from clothing styles to haircuts to political candidates to operating systems. If RJR could stimulate what is called a norm cascade throughout the general population -- especially among young adults and their children -- then they would be able to raise enough money to fix the time problem and become profitable once again."

Morgan gave a sour look. "A true futures market. Based on the observation that people often act more like herd animals -- sheep is the term the studies used -- than rational individuals. So go ignite a dangerous fad among the lemmings and haul in the cash."

V-Kay shrugged. "The herd instinct in humans is well understood. As is the fact that it is strongest in children and young adults. So they naturally are the ones targeted. Corporations have always recognized this characteristic of the market and harnessed it for their own benefit."

"Even when it led to the death of their customers," said Morgan.

V-Kay shrugged again. "It was their choice. Nobody forced them to sign up for the New Frontiers program. They were, after all, consenting adults. Or, if below legal age, had a consenting adult who was legally able to sign for them."

"True," Morgan agreed, looking at me. And another of their exchanges came to an end.

* * *

The Tri-D camera came in over a vast sea of towering gray concrete buildings in the heavily polluted air, housing for Earth's upper middle-class, crossed a sluggish gray river lined by factories emitting clouds of toxic smoke, and paused outside the window of one of the units. Inside, on a couch, sat a well-dressed family watching the wall-sized vid. On it was an advertisement for Urban Pastures' Colonial Elegance world, a New Frontiers development, showing a landscape of rolling hills covered in snow. Approaching a charmingly rustic country house were a man and his two sons leading a horse that was dragging a freshly cut Christmas tree. The camera moved to one of the windows in the house and looked inside, where a woman and her daughter were in the process of removing a turkey from the oven, then drew back. Across the screen flashed the words, "Where do you want to go today?" In the background, a choir was sweetly singing Yuletide carols.

"That was one of our more productive seasonal promotions," said Viggen, turning off the audio, "especially in the NA and Euro-Russ Sectors." He touched his PC to his bracelet, and the scene shifted again, this time to the business district of a megalopolis in Japan Sector, showing a large animated billboard on the front of a building where two crowded streets made a "Y" intersection. The billboard showed a vast empty landscape of redrock buttes and scrub desert under a clear blue sky, with a private car driving rapidly down a long open road. Inside the car, a convertible, was a family of five, the wind streaming through their hair, looks of ecstasy on their faces. At the bottom of the billboard was the logo of Urban Pastures, with a flashing access number. Across the top of the billboard, in three different languages, streamed the words, "Where do you want to go today?"

"Scenes of vast open spaces combined with technology -- such as the prospect of actually being able to own a private car and have an open road to drive it on -- seemed to work best in the Japan and Asian Sectors," said Viggen. "But the all-time winner, especially for impulse sales, was our chain of theme parks, which were strategically placed in every qualifying population center."

"`Qualifying' meaning the local population had the discretionary income to pay the entrance fee to the park," said Morgan sourly, "as well as enough saleable assets to purchase their Urban Pastures tickets."

"Don't forget that the World Council's Department of Population Control was providing an emigration bonus to all females of breeding age and their young children," said V-Kay. "That in itself provided a major incentive."

"True," agreed Morgan, an edge of sarcasm in his voice. "Obtaining that was the all-time major achievement of RJR's Political Action Committee. It came close, by itself, to paying the scanning and storage fees."

I looked at both of them, said, "Was the public aware at the time of these promotions that you didn't have any New Frontiers units available? Or had even solved the software problem? Am I missing something here?"

V-Kay gave me a hard look. "The Board held a series of meetings with our legal department to explore this issue and its potential liability. After a thorough review of the Uniform Commercial Code and applicable case law, it was determined that since we had already completed the design phase and received our construction permits for the commercial units, Urban Pastures and its franchisees were legally entitled to begin offering discounted group rates and prerelease specials to consumers who would sign up and report to the scanning centers by a certain date. To be completely legal, all we were required to do was provide proper notice of unit availability and possible upload delays at the time of sale, which we did."

Morgan snorted. "Yeah. A couple of lines buried in the small print of a nineteen hundred-page document written in legalese."

V-Kay shrugged. "It's the consumer's responsibility to read and understand the contracts they sign." He signaled Viggen to continue with the briefing.

"This was our theme park in the Serengeti megalopolis of Africa Sector," Viggen said, as the Tri-D camera showed a high-altitude view of a vast landscape covered with unpainted concrete housing blocks stretching as far as the eye could see, the Earth's curvature plainly visible in the distance, then swooped down on a faint spot of green, barely visible through the air pollution, which grew and grew until we could see it was a miniature town with small houses situated on winding, tree-shaded streets. Each house had its own lawn in front and a small, but pleasant, yard in the back. Surrounding each house was a white picket fence with a low gate, and to the side of each gate was an attractive mailbox. The sidewalks lining the quiet streets were wide and clean, and led to an old-fashioned Main Street that was filled with cheerful crowds visiting the many restaurants and shops.

"The restaurants," Viggen noted, "had a large selection of real food -- fruits and vegetables -- at very inexpensive prices. This was, in fact, one of the Park's major attractions. The entry fee was naturally refunded if one patronized any of the shops, so these theme parks became a major attraction wherever they were."

Then the camera, its low pass finished, was making its turn over the vast expanse of housing blocks and industrial areas surrounding the theme park, in the process passing over a number of algae factories with their large, slime-covered vats of stagnant water -- the major source of food for the local population -- on its approach to the main gate. Above the gate was a large animated sign saying, "Join Your Friends at Urban Pastures' Kidworld -- A Planned Community for The Family That Cares ." Enclosing the park, keeping out the rest of the world -- though they were still able to view the happy crowds inside -- was a high chain-link fence topped with coils of electrified-razor wire.

The camera paused for a moment outside the gate's four ticket booths, inspecting the long lines of poorly dressed but clean people waiting their turn, welfare tokens in hand, then passed inside, focused for a moment on an old-fashioned drugstore with a crowded soda fountain, then moved down the tidy streets to the petting zoo.

"This was one of our nicer touches," Viggen said. "Unlike NA Sector, where the regional authorities were able to preserve a large area for wildlife and therefore support a profitable sport hunting industry, in Africa Sector all native wildlife had been exterminated by the middle of the twenty-second century, and most of the children here had never seen a wild animal except for the cats and dogs that lived off the local rat population."

The camera focused on several delighted children petting a zebra and a gnu in one area, moved on to another, where children were looking at a lion that lay purring at their feet as its trainer scratched behind its ears, then stopped in front of an elephant, which was giving rides around a small track.

"The animals were, of course, robots," Viggen said, "but they still remained one of our most popular features."

The camera then moved past a green and shady park where families were having a lawn picnic by the artificial lake, moved on to a crowded fenced area containing swings and slides and play tunnels, then focused on five children who were tugging their parents in the direction of the sales office where a small line had formed. Above its door an animated sign, its letters formed by different animals all wearing happy smiles, flashed, "Where do you want to go today?"

"Of course," said Viggen, "none of these promotions were as successful as the ones operated by the various fundamentalist religious groups such as Allahworld, which was located in Mecca Sector and, from what I understand, was the most beautiful of them all. Modeled on fourteenth-century Marrakech, it kept strictly to the traditional ways and, naturally, was prohibited to non-Muslims.

"Also very successful were the numerous religions that sprang up around the project, most of them some variant or another of the New Age cults whose lineage stretched back to the middle of the twentieth century."

The Tri-D came in over a large stadium whose bleachers were filled with people watching the scene on the field below them, panned slowly across the crowd -- mostly older folks, sitting in small groups, who appeared to be crying -- then slowly descended to the playing field that was packed with many youths of both sexes, apparently thousands of them, all wearing white robes with a red spiral-shaped emblem on the left side. The youths, swaying back and forth with looks of religious rapture on their faces, were chanting in unison with their leader, an old man with long flowing hair and beard. The old man, his robe white like the others but with a gold spiral, was sitting cross-legged on a raised platform beating time for the chant with his raised arms. All around him on the platform were lavish arrangements of flowers, and to each side, sitting in a row, were twelve acolytes, also chanting. Behind him, normally a score board for sporting events, a sign said, "Urban Pastures Welcomes Master Baba Do and the Graduates of Our Heaven."

Viggen turned on the audio, and we could now hear the chant, "Do, Do, Do, Do, Do, Baba Do, Do, Do, Do, Do, Baba Do, Do -- "

Viggen turned the audio off, said, "This was the graduation ceremony for those who had reached the Twelfth Level, and therefore were ready to ascend into Our Heaven, the group's private New Frontiers world, which they would prepare for the coming of their Master. Apparently they would then await the arrival of a spaceship from another galaxy that would take them into the true paradise and immortality." Viggen paused, then added, "Upon graduation they, of course, donated all their worldly goods to their Master to help continue his work."

The ceremony then came to an end, and, in long orderly lines the graduates, each carrying a lit candle, filed out of the stadium gates to a series of numbered parking lots where long lines of buses waited to transport them to the scanning centers. On each bus an animated sign said, "Where do you want to go today?"

"Urban Pastures certainly was thorough," I said, unable to keep the cynical edge out of my voice. "I suppose I don't need to ask whether those signing up were warned about the failure rate associated with scanning, or what actually awaited them if they did end up being dumped in the wilderness of an untamed and unexplored world."

Morgan looked at me, his expression carefully neutral, said, "Of course not. This was strictly a caveat emptor operation."

V-Kay gave Morgan an irritated look. "It was just common marketing practice, nothing more. Everybody expects it. Business is, after all, business." He paused, the bleakness in his eyes deepening, then continued. "What wasn't expected was the reaction when Urban Pastures, overextended, was forced into Chapter 11."

* * *

"So it all fell apart in the end, eh?" I said.

"You should have seen the media reaction," Morgan said. "Talk about a feeding frenzy. They milked the situation for all it was worth, causing the panic to spread like wildfire, especially after it was discovered that Urban Pastures' Board of Directors, seeing the failure coming, had secretly sold off all their stock, voted themselves large severance bonuses, and resigned en masse. It was widely trumpeted as the largest Ponzi scheme in history."

"It wasn't a Ponzi," V-Kay said. "Ponzi schemes are illegal. Urban Pastures and its franchisees broke no laws whatsoever. RJR's legal department made sure of that."

"Ponzi?" I had come across the term on Earth but, finding business distasteful I had only a vague sense of its meaning.

V-Kay looked at me. "Ponzi schemes do not have a real product or service to sell -- they're just a pyramid with those at the top feeding off those beneath them: a process of continuous recruitment that lasts until it runs out of victims. Urban Pastures and its franchise holders did have a legitimate product: they were selling advance, deeply-discounted tickets to RJR's New Frontiers worlds, with the full approval and support of the World Council."

"It's interesting what a few campaign contributions can buy," said Morgan dryly, "not to mention a few lucrative stock options and positions on the Urban Pastures Board. Unfortunately, the end result of RJR including World Council representatives on the Board was that the funds earmarked for software development were instead diverted into additional sales promotions, new theme parks, and large salaries for numerous layers of upper management. Meanwhile, my group -- in effect shunted to the sidelines -- struggled without adequate resources to modify the software." He looked directly at V-Kay, said, "RJR was well aware of the number of programmers we needed to complete the job within the twenty-year time frame, yet they only provided funding for 1,700 seats. We did the best we could with what we had, working double shifts without extra compensation, but we didn't have a chance. Not against the Board's incessant churning, profit-taking, and shortsighted greed."

"You know perfectly well why we had to do it," V-Kay said, for the first time anger coloring his cheeks. "We didn't have any other choice, not if we wanted funding from the Department of Population Control. Without it, the project would have died the day you ordered PDU-1 to stop placing new applications in the matrix. This way we at least had a fighting chance, small though it was, and it had to be taken. We just ran out of time and luck."

"Actually," said Viggen, raising his hand, requesting a truce, "a lot of the blame does lie in the media. During the investigation that followed Urban Pastures' collapse, it came out that many of the prisoners supposedly transported to PDU-1 had been placed in storage on Earth instead. This immediately became a major scandal. Then an investigative reporter dug out the actual failure rate of our scanning technology -- marketing had been claiming the scans were as safe as travel between Earth and HQ -- and that became the next one. Following that was a report making public for the first time the actual seriousness of the software problem, and that RJR had only been making token efforts to fix it. At that point the media started publicly calling RJR and Urban Pastures a pack of World-Council-supported murderers who never had the slightest intention of building anything other than the initial prototype, and that just for bait. They further claimed to have confidential information from `a highly placed source' that the entire program had all along been an elaborate scheme by the Department of Population Control to curb population growth. This ignited a new round of hysteria that, fueled by wild rumors of all kinds, kept building and building until riots finally erupted all over the planet. These riots, on the surface motivated by rage over all the deaths during the seven years the promotions ran, eventually led to a government crackdown."

Viggen touched his PC to his bracelet, and between us formed an image of a large crowd rioting around one of Urban Pastures' theme parks, this one in a slightly more upscale area than the one previously shown, the camera focusing for a moment on a line of bodies hanging from the sign over the park's gate. The bodies, both male and female, were all wearing Urban Pastures uniforms, and behind them the theme park was burning. The windows of the shops lining the streets outside the park had been broken, and large numbers of people were removing merchandise. The whole scene appeared, in a strange, grotesque way, to be a festive one, with the expressions on the various individuals' faces, males, females, even children, seeming to be those at a party.

Then the camera drew back, and we could now see a line of military aircraft approaching on the horizon, their fuselages showing the sheen of activated electrosteel. As the aircraft approached the crowd, they began to release what appeared to be a spray of some sort, and as the spray reached the people in the streets they began to fall to the ground and go into convulsions.

"The chemical being used," Viggen said, "was a new, and extremely deadly, nerve poison that breaks down within twenty-four hours. This was its first use in combat, and it fully lived up to HQ's expectations."

The Tri-D now changed, this time to one of an amateurish quality, showing what appeared to be a shift change at one of the government's low-priority concrete-and-steel office buildings. The camera focused on the crowds of people entering and leaving the building, most of them wearing government uniforms. Then the building suddenly blew up in a violent flash of flame and flying debris, and I couldn't help recoiling in surprise. As the dust settled and the hysteria began, against the flames and smoke and body parts formed a logo of a turning planet, obviously an idealistic vision of a clean and pure Earth.

"The logo you see," Viggen said, "is that of the Earth First terrorist group. The blast was in retaliation for the gassing of the crowds in the previous scene."

Once again the Tri-D changed, the camera now located in space a short distance from HQ. In the background the Earth floated, its surface invisible because of the thick layer of air pollution under the high cirrus. Then from HQ some sort of beam was emitted, directed at Earth, and the camera followed it down through the clouds and pollution to the surface, where a large section of a megalopolis abruptly vaporized.

"Secret agents of the World Council," Viggen said, "had discovered the approximate location of what they believed to be the headquarters of the Earth First group, but they were unable to obtain the cooperation of the local residents, so as an object lesson HQ obliterated the entire area. Unfortunately, it turned out that the agents had been mistaken, and the homes had been those of law-abiding citizens.

"This act ignited a planetwide uprising, and HQ found itself in a full-scale guerilla war. Those on HQ were safe, of course, protected both by distance and electrosteel, and there life pretty much went on as normal, with the usual round of parties, cultural events, and other functions. However, on Earth anarchy ruled, and after a full World Council meeting, HQ issued an ultimatum: cease their rebellion by 2100 Greenwich six days hence, and deliver the leaders of Earth First to the proper authorities, or the planet would be decimated on a random, computer-selected pattern." Viggen paused, for the first time showing emotion, then continued. "When the deadline passed without any response except the blowing up of another government installation, the World Council implemented their threat."

The Tri-D moved over the planet, showing one vast area after another of destruction, in the process passing over where Fairbanks and my village used to be, then drew back, and with a slight sense of shock I realized the camera had been focused on the screen in the auditorium where the launching of PDU-1 had taken place. At the podium, the president of the World Council was making a progress report to his peers, punctuating it with angry blows of his fist, when suddenly the images of destruction on the screen behind him were replaced by a mocking cartoon from the mid-twentieth century. The cartoon showed a cheerful rabbit in tuxedo and top-hat leaning through a red and yellow bulls-eye. Below the rabbit were the happy, dancing words "That's all Folks!", and in the bottom right corner was the spinning logo of the Earth First terrorist group. Viggen touched his PC to his bracelet, and the audio came on, playing a bouncy little tune.

"Looney to the end," said Morgan, in disgust.

$Date: 2005/05/06 02:02:41 $ Copyright © 2000 by F. E. Potts CSS XHTML 1.0 Strict